9/11 survivor emphasizes importance of blood donations
Today’s high school students know the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, primarily as a chapter in a history book.
After surviving a business trip that happened to take him to New York City on that particular Tuesday, Matt Barkley eventually considered his ordeal to be history.
“I thought I was done that day. I thought my harrowing event was over with,” he said. “And on with my life I went.”
As he told Bethel Park High School students at three morning assemblies Monday, that turned out not to be the case.
“Two years ago today – Sept. 11, 2015 – I was diagnosed with leukemia.”
Barkley, a McKeesport native and Elizabeth resident, visited Bethel Park to kick off the series of four blood drives the school is hosting with Central Blood Bank during the academic year, with the first event scheduled for Oct. 11.
Ken Waldie remembered
Along with Matt Barkley’s talks on Monday, Principal Zeb Jansante spoke about a 1973 Bethel Park High School graduate who lost his life on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ken Waldie was a passenger aboard the first airplane that crashed into the World Trade Center. He was an outstanding swimmer at Bethel Park and at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was voted class president each of his four years, something that had never been accomplished at the tradition-rich institution.
After fulfilling his five-year military commitment, Waldie used his mathematics degree to gain employment with Raytheon Corp. While working, he earned a master’s degree and graduated first in his class.
Forty-six at the time of his death, Waldie left behind a wife, Carol, three sons, Andrew, Jeffrey and Jonathan, and a daughter, Meredith, along with a brother, Jack, and three sisters, Jane, Mary Louise and Grace.
In honor of Waldie and Pentagon attack survivor Kevin Shaeffer, formerly of Peters Township, The Almanac has presented the Waldie/Shaeffer Scholarship Award each year since 2002 to a student who plans to serve the country.
He spoke about receiving chemotherapy – he’s cancer-free now – and how donors of blood and blood products made his treatment possible.
“The good thing about chemo is that it kills cancer cells. The bad thing is that it good cells, too. The good cells that are killed are platelets and red blood cells, which you need to live,” he said. “Without that, I’m not here today.”
Now 48, Barkley was working for Bombardier Corp. in West Mifflin when he traveled to Manhattan in 2001. On the morning of Sept. 11, he was attending a meeting not far from the World Trade Center.
“Shortly after 9 o’clock, we were up on the 20th floor of the building we were in, and security came in and told us to get out,” he recalled. “We didn’t know why, but they looked more serious than a normal fire drill. So we got out pretty quickly.”
He and his colleagues could see a hole in center’s North Tower, but the conjecture was that a commuter airplane had struck the building accidentally.
“I was going to go call my wife. I didn’t have a cellphone. Not everybody carried cellphones back in that day, if you can believe it,” he told the students. “So I walked across the street to go to the pay phone. And as I did that, there was an enormous roar above my head, and I instinctively ducked.
That was the sound of hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 flying into the South Tower.
And worse was yet to come for Barkley and others who were nearby.
“To get out of that area, you had to walk north and you had to walk past the trade centers, and we sure as heck weren’t doing that at that moment. So we stayed where we were,” he said. “And the first building fell and then the second building fell, and we were those people covered in ash.”
Fourteen years later – a surprisingly long passage of time, as far as he was concerned – came his diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that causes abnormal white blood cells build up in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells. The disease is relatively rare and especially so for patients in Barkley’s age range.
He contacted the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides medical monitoring and treatment for survivors who were in the New York City disaster area.
“They reviewed my medical records, and the type of cancer I have is approved through their program,” he said.
One issue he encountered, though, was finding a bone marrow donor. Barkley was unable to do so through the national registry, and his 20-year-old son, Nicholas, finally proved to be a sufficient match.
“I try to plead people to join the list, because there are 500,000 people on the list, and I went 0 for 500,000 as far as a match is concerned,” Barkley said. “That’s why I had to go the route I did.”
Despite the pair of memorable-for-the-wrong-reason Sept. 11s, he adheres to the inspirational axiom that three-time cancer survivor and former presidential chief of staff Hamilton Jordan (1944-2008) put forth in the title of his book: “No Such Thing As a Bad Day.”
“That’s the way you have to live your life,” he told the students. “Now, don’t let yourself go through a situation like 9/11 or getting diagnosed with leukemia before you decide to live that way. Do it now. It’s really important.”